Throughout my career, I’ve attended dozens of women’s networking events, including lunches, happy hour meet-and-greets and more. In a professional culture where women are routinely left out of March Madness pools and are also denied the same choice of employment as men or a seat at the Vice President’s table, women-only networking groups have often felt like the only way to feel included by my peers. Yet while these groups have helped me build close friendships, blow off steam and commiserate about workforce inequities, I also believe they’ve prevented me from learning about career opportunities, perpetuated stereotypes, and kept me from having conversations with men that might’ve helped me grow my career.
The fact is that men are still the ones with the most power and connections in our society. If she wants to get ahead, an ambitious woman needs a powerful—and therefore usually male—mentor. She needs a Larry Summers to her Sheryl Sandberg.
This isn’t just hyperbole. A well-known Catalyst study found that while women were more likely than men to report having mentors, women’s mentors generally had “less organizational clout.” The report argues that this is why men in the study received 15 percent more promotions than women in the same timeframe.
I certainly found this to be true during my time as a student at Harvard, where I joined a women-only club called the Pleiades. Although some of the wonderful and inspiring women I met became mentors, I can’t say that any of them gave me a big leg-up in my career. This shouldn’t come as a surprise: Our club was founded in 2002 and didn’t have so much as a Wikipedia page while the men-only Fly Club had a history going back two centuries and boasted former presidents, Supreme Court justices and other men who had been elevated to powerful positions as alumni.
It’s not just official groups and events that tend to shake out along gender lines. Although cross-gender friendships aren’t explicitly frowned upon in the workplace, they also aren’t encouraged. As the Atlantic notes, the consensus in our culture about platonic friendships outside of marriage is that they are “a guarantor of flirtatious excitement at best, inevitable infidelity at worst.”
Yet the alternative—gender-segregated social events like the “girls’ book club” and the “guys’ poker night”—only helps to maintain the divide between men and women and support cronyism among men. Moreover, even when companies do encourage after-work socialization among all genders, women are often excluded. This is in large part because working women—who often are forced to choose between work and parenting their children and disproportionately assume more childcare and at-home responsibilities—don’t have as much leisure time as men.
Gender segregation also has a negative impact on men, and research shows that men tend to form their beliefs about gender roles based on what they witness from the women around them. Men who have daughters tend to lose their attachment to traditional gender roles, as do men married to women who work full-time outside the home. For men without daughters or working wives, close female friends might be the only people who can break down their gender stereotypes. Of course, this won’t happen if they never have the opportunity to make close female friends to begin with.
Women-only groups perpetuated the existence of the men-only groups to which they’re supposed to be “equivalent”—but which still tend to retain most of the power, connections, and resources. In 2016, Harvard recognized the inequity this causes by banning single-sex clubs. In the Harvard Crimson, University President Drew G. Faust was quoted saying that although these clubs had their place, they enacted “forms of privilege and exclusion at odds with our deepest values.”
Though they were founded on the premise of equality, it’s ironic that the existence of female-only “equivalents” like Pleiades likely helped extend the lifespan of male-only clubs. At Princeton University, single-sex clubs went co-ed in 1991. Earlier this year, 9 out of 11 of the university’s famed eating clubs voted to elect women presidents.
Yes, women-only groups are fun, comforting, and supportive, but they’re holding us back. By separating into single-sex groups, we are telling ourselves both subconsciously and consciously that gender defines who we are. But if we want real equality in the workplace, women need to step outside the comfortable confines of our women-only networking groups—and we must encourage men to do the same.